I’ve received a couple of emails from readers asking how virtualization beginners can gain experience. My first piece of
advice is to create a home or practice lab. This high-level overview outlines what you need to get a VMware vSphere 5.5 home lab up and running; there’s a lot of documentation out there to help you with the actual installs. (Note: The intent is
not to suggest the best hardware, because you’ll most likely be using old servers or desktops that you already have.)


  • One server, though two servers are preferable so you can work with cluster features such as Distributed Resource Scheduler (DRS) and High Availability (HA). These servers need at least 4 GB of RAM
    each, but more RAM is always better. Also, you need to make sure the servers offer virtualization support, which often can be enabled in the BIOS.
  • A storage device (e.g., Iomega StorCenter) that you can connect to your servers. This isn’t necessary for a vSphere install, but you’ll need it if you want to
    practice cluster features. It’s also
    possible to use the vSphere Storage Appliance (VSA) with your local drives on the physical hosts, though this is a more advanced
    installation for a first-timer.
  • A switch to connect all the hosts,
    storage, and potentially the laptop or desktop you plan to use to connect.

Once all your hardware is connected to
the switch, you can start installing the software. You’ll need to download trial versions of vSphere components. As of this writing, vSphere 5.5 is the
most recently released version, though the basics apply to all the versions. To download the trial versions of these components, you’ll
need to create a new login (it’s free when you supply your email address).


  • ESXi 5.5: ESXi is the VMware operating system
    you load on to each of your physical hosts (or servers). 
  • vCenter 5.5: This is the management software
    that gives you all the cool features you hear about, including HA, DRS, vMotion, and dozens more. vCenter
    can be a Virtual Appliance that you download and deploy, or you can download an
    installer to put on a Windows 2008 R2 or Windows 2012 server. I recommend using the Windows
    version first; then, after you gain some experience, you can try to deploy the Virtual Appliance.
  • Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows Server 2012: Although this isn’t absolutely necessary, you’ll need this for vCenter as noted
    above, and you’ll probably want to create a domain controller so you can test
    domain connectivity. Download
    the ISO evaluation from Microsoft.com.

How to create your lab


  1. Create a boot disk with the ESXi image (.ISO)
    file you downloaded earlier.
  2. Load the CD and start the server (make sure
    you’re booting from the CD).
  3. Follow the wizard to install ESXi. You’ll
    specify which drive you want to install ESXi on and click F11 and Enter a lot.
  4. Once it’s installed, press F2 to configure
    the server with things like IP addresses, gateways, and host names.
  5. Once you have it configured, try to ping the new
    server from a different computer.
  6. Repeat these steps for each physical server.


Now you can
connect to your ESXi server from a remote computer.

  1. On your remote computer, open a browser and browse to the IP address you gave
    the ESXi server.
  2. You’ll get a Web UI that has a link to
    download the vSphere Client. Click the link and open the vSphere Client.
  3. In the vSphere Client, enter the IP address of
    your ESXi server, along with username (root) and the password you specified
    during the ESXi install. Now you’re in the vSphere Client, which is where you’ll do most of your
    work. There’s also a Web UI that
    you’ll see during the vCenter install.
  4. Create a new VM for your domain controller by
    right-clicking the host.
  5. Attach the Windows Server ISO to the VM and
    power it on. Install Windows as
    you normally would.
  6. After Windows is installed, do a DCPROMO to
    create the domain controller.
  7. Create domain admins to use for your vCenter
  8. Create a new VM for your vCenter VM by
    right-clicking the host.
  9. Attach
    the Windows Server ISO to the VM and power it on. Install Windows as you normally would.
  10. After
    Windows is installed, attach the vCenter ISO to the VM and do the Simple Install
    (SSO, Inventory Service, and vCenter) to install everything you need for
    vCenter (use your domain admin account).
  11. Once
    vCenter is installed, you can close your client, re-open it, and connect
    to the IP address of your vCenter server. 
  12. Create
    a data center and a cluster, and then add all your physical hosts.


If you have questions about the process, please post them in
the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them.